Truth: A How-To Guide Author Simon Blackburn discusses his new book Truth: A Guide. The book looks at the battle lines drawn by competing forces in a historical debate over absolute truth.
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Truth: A How-To Guide

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Truth: A How-To Guide

Truth: A How-To Guide

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan.

Do you want to know the truth? Well, let me first ask which kind of truth? The absolute, based on reason and hard facts, or the relative, influenced by multiple beliefs and ideas? Philosophers throughout the ages have been examining the meaning of truth and the two schools of thought break down roughly along those lines, absolute and relative truth. But as we all know, it's never quite that simple when it comes to philosophy, and if you barely got through philosophy 101, there's now a guide to help you understand truth and its meaning. Simon Blackburn, the author and professor who wrote the books "Think" and "Being Good," is our guest today. His new book is "Truth: A Guide."

We want to hear from you. How important is truth in your everyday life, and is there one person or event that influenced your own ideas about truth? Tell us about it. Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is

Thanks so much for being with us, Professor Blackburn.

Professor SIMON BLACKBURN (University of Cambridge): Thank you very much, Lynn.

NEARY: I think I was a bit glib there in my introduction.

Prof. BLACKBURN: Well, no.

NEARY: Apart from absolutists and relativists, at the beginning of your book you name quite a few schools of thought--traditionalist vs. post-modernist, realist vs. idealist, objectivist vs. subjectivist, to name a few. Maybe you could summarize for us what is at the core of this very old intellectual debate about the nature of truth.

Prof. BLACKBURN: Good. Well, I think it starts off with the absolutist kind of tendency in all of us. We are brought up in childhood to believe certain things; we take them for granted. As we grow older, we're also told lots of things, possibly about religion, about ethics or simply about art, and we accept those in the same spirit. But then sometime around adolescence children start to question things and they realize that not all adults agree and that there are multiple opinions on many things. And when they realize that, they start to get worried and start to think, well, what is truth? This is Pontius Pilate's famous question. And the philosophical impulse starts there. That's where people start to think about the matter and to worry about the diversity of subjective takes on the truth. And if you really start to worry about that, then, as I say, you start to worry about whether there's one single subject that all the world is looking at and start to think that maybe worlds are more creations than discoveries. And that's a very destabilizing thought and it's the thought that the relativist is always trying to push on us.

NEARY: So we're not just talking about a debate that is important to the world of philosophy, but a discussion that's really important to each person's individual life, you're saying. And why?


NEARY: Why is it so important to the individual?

Prof. BLACKBURN: Well, I think you'll find lots of people out there who are very proud, they're very keen to affirm absolute truth. I think you gave us a quotation just before we started talking from somebody who's absolutely certain that she had the absolute truth, that the Bible had given it to her. And there are other people who say, well, that's one version amongst others. There's not only the Bible, there are other books and they disagree about the nature of the truth. Who's to say? And that question--`Who's to say?'--is basically the relativist's sort of mantra. He's got two things he says. One is `Who's to say?' and the other is `That's just your opinion,' the implication being that all opinion is equally valid or equally good. And that's a liberal thought. It's a tolerant thought in the beginning. Whether it remains tolerant and liberal and egalitarian and democratic all the time is one of the things I explore in the book. And I argue that it doesn't; it, too, can tip into a kind of dogmatism.

NEARY: Yeah. It's interesting in the book--it's what we might think of as a Catch-22. As soon as the relativist says, you know, `There is no such thing as an absolute,' then the relativist becomes an absolutist.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. BLACKBURN: Yes. He's got to avoid what a colleague of mine very wittily called the Ishmael effect. If you remember "Moby Dick," at the end of the book, the narrator, Ishmael, tells how everybody on the Pequod perished, `and I alone remained to tell the tale.' And of course if you're on a ship that goes down in the middle of the southern ocean, you don't remain to tell the tale. So there's a kind of self-reference involved. And that's a familiar argument in the debate between absolutists and relativists.

NEARY: A lot of people may think relativism is a new idea, but as you make very clear in this book, no, it's not at all. It goes back to the days of Socrates. And maybe you could talk a little bit about the history of...

Prof. BLACKBURN: That's right. Well, the character that--well, a character that Plato is very keen to oppose is Protagoras, who appears in the dialogue with Theaetetus, or at least his students do. And the dialogue is a debate between the followers of Protagoras, who are relativists in modern terms, and Socrates, who is trying to make a pitch for absolute truth, the existence of absolute truth and our knowledge of it. And Socrates wins. We know that Plato had very strong absolutist tendencies, and since he was the writer, he got to tell how the debate panned out. But, actually, Socrates wins by a number of very interesting but quite doubtful moves, and I'd have thought a Protagoras who knew his business could resist them. And I explain a bit about that in the chapter on that debate.

NEARY: What are some of those moves?

Prof. BLACKBURN: Well, basically it is a version. Protagoras was famous for saying that man is the measure of all things, and Socrates takes him to have meant that all opinion on any subject at all is equally good; if it seems that way to you, then that's how it is. And Socrates really has very little trouble in upsetting that doctrine. And he shows that Protagoras or Protagoreans can't really hold to it because, even in holding to it, they're affirming something, which in effect means denying the opposite. So they're undermining their own position. That's a sort of judo flip which Socrates is very good at.

I say in the book that probably the historical Protagoras, although we have no writings of his, had a much more subtle doctrine in mind. I don't think he meant that any opinion on any subject was equally good because, after all, not any measurement of any quantity is equally good. Measurement can be done more or less carefully, more or less usefully, more or less accurately. And saying that man is the measure of all things doesn't have to be quite as nihilistic a doctrine as Socrates made it sound. So I suspect that Socrates was parodying the opposition. Actually, the sophists in ancient Greece, of whom Protagoras was a member, get a very bad rap from Plato. He hated them. And I suspect that he caricatured their arguments in various ways. Still, the debate is still with us, as you say.

NEARY: Yeah, the debate has been going--How do you see that debate playing itself out, not just in philosophical terms, in today's world but maybe in political terms? Or how does it play itself out?

Prof. BLACKBURN: Right. Right. I think just at present it's playing itself out in a variety of ways. I mean, there was this chilling interview which I think Ron Suskind gave with somebody in the White House in which the White House spokesman is supposed to have denigrated the reality-based community out there, which preferred solutions to be established by empirical investigation and thought, and was fantasizing about a kind of omnipotence in which the White House generated its own reality. And I think people's familiarity with ideas like virtual realities has suggested to them that in some sense we live in a modern bubble, a bubble of created media stories, news stories, images which may or may not correspond to anything, or that there may be a lot out there that they don't correspond to, which we aren't shown. So the sense of disconnection, dislocation from the truth is, I think, pervasive. If it goes as far as the White House, that's quite far enough for most of us.

And then, of course, when Cardinal Ratzinger became the pope, one of the first things he did was issue a great sort of fatwa against relativism. So he was worried that the authority of the church had been in some way corroded by a pluralistic, relativistic kind of atmosphere of the times.

So I think there are people, you know, who aren't philosophers who worry about this.

NEARY: Yeah. How important is it for somebody to have--I'm trying to think of that--you raise something interesting, which is that in this day and age, with the media and the manipulation of the media, it is sometimes hard for a person to know if what they're seeing or reading or listening to is really something that's the truth.

Prof. BLACKBURN: Right.

NEARY: How important is it for people to develop their own personal sense of truth? I mean, how much does that add meaning to a person's life, that they need to grapple with these kinds of things that you're talking about, think about it?

Prof. BLACKBURN: Well, I think for reflective people--I don't say everybody ought to reflect on philosophy all the time. I think that's a foolish idea. It's not an ideal which I'd subscribe to. But I think people are naturally reflective and it's important for them to have elementary tools of reflection. I think it's better if they reflect in the light of, say, historical knowledge. If you know something about how, for example, governments behave, your confidence in the government will be more or less adjusted according to that track record. So I think data, information and the ability to handle it are the essential components of a working democracy. So in that sense, I'm an absolutist. I absolutely believe in the value of truth and the necessity of it to a working polity, to a working civilization.

NEARY: And you say that it's important that both sides understand the arguments that the others make or come to some kind of respect, I guess you're saying, for the other's arguments.

Prof. BLACKBURN: Well, very much so. And that's basically the message in the book, that although there are these two polarities, the absolutist and the relativist, there's a lot of space for adjustment and there's a lot of space for intelligent discourse between them. In fact, I argue that the notion of truth itself doesn't really sustain the debate. In other word's, Pilate's question `What is truth?' was actually rather a bad question, a misleading question. It meant that Pilate took his eye off the ball. His problem wasn't to answer the question `What is truth?'; his problem was to answer the question, `Is this man guilty as charged?'

And I think often the relativist/absolutist debate does enable people to take their eye off the ball. It becomes a distraction. And the real issues of the day need not be whether truth is absolute or relative. The real issues are individual things like whether to permit abortions or whether to go to war. And the notion of truth should hover in the background. It should be an ideal for all parties, but it shouldn't be a topic of debate. It's a strange thing to write a book saying that the topic of this book shouldn't be a topic of debate, but that's a philosophical paradox.

NEARY: Has there been a time in--we're going--I guess we'll get to this question 'cause we're going to have to take a break. We'll get to this question after the break. And we're going to be taking some calls. If you have any questions for our guest, Simon Blackburn, give us a call at 1 (800) 989-8255. His latest book is "Truth: A Guide."

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

My guest is Simon Blackburn, a professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge and author of the new book, "Truth: A Guide." You're invited to join the discussion. Give us a call at (800) 989-TALK. And our e-mail address is

And I just wondered, Professor Blackburn, has there been a time in the past where there was more agreement between the schools of thought on truth than there is now? It seems now we're fairly polarized.

Prof. BLACKBURN: Yes. I think during the first crest of the scientific revolution, the 17th and 18th centuries, but particularly the 18th century when confidence started to build, that the scientific method, education, reason were going to take over and sweep aside old superstitions and create the modern world--so, in other words, the period of the Enlightenment. I think there was a time when truth was found easier than it had been in other philosophical climates. There was less skepticism for a while. There was, I think, less debate. There was less acquaintance with a variety of ways of thinking and more tendency, let's face it, to find strangers barbaric and primitive and not worth listening to. So there was a period of confidence, I think you could say.

There were always countervoices. There were skeptics like Bayle and David Hume even at the high point of the Enlightenment. And then, of course, Rousseau came along, and by the end of the 18th century there was a certain sort of spiritual turmoil had set up again. And it's in times of turmoil that relativism obviously gets its major foothold. That's when it starts to grab people's imaginations. But I think it's fair to say that for a time, those voices were fairly stilled. But alas, they're back in force now. So we can only look back on that with some kind of nostalgia.

NEARY: All right, let's take a call now from Daniel. And he's calling from Kansas City, Missouri. Hi, Daniel.

DANIEL (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I'm a philosophy major at a Jesuit university here. And so a lot of what you're saying is not foreign to me at all, but I actually agree with pretty much all of it. It's--something that I think helps people understand of absolute truth, or something that's helped me give an example of absolute truth, is the fact that in our lives, we're able to communicate with people from other cultures and other languages. And I think that suggests that certain ideas or objects have forms that can translate to people despite their own, you know, cultural beliefs. And I didn't know if you'd ever given that any thought or how you see that.

Prof. BLACKBURN: Well, yes, I've certainly given it thought. In fact, the last chapter of the book is about historical understanding, which includes anthropological understanding, understanding of people whose minds are, at first blush at any rate, foreign to us, and so foreign that they resist translation. I'm interested that you take that as a kind of habitat for absolute truth because, of course, the infirmities of interpretation, the fact that texts admit of plural readings, is often cited as a kind of, you know, entry point into a post-modernist or relativist way of thinking. The idea that there are multiple readings of any text and that none of them commands an absolute authority is, I should have thought, you know, almost--it's carved in letters of stone on English faculties and anthropology faculties. So in a sense that's the stronghold of the relativist kind of way of thinking. So it's interesting to me that you take that as a place where absolutism can get a foothold.

DANIEL: Well, thank you. I mean, I'm taking Latin right now and I find it...

Prof. BLACKBURN: Right.

DANIEL: ...very intriguing that I'm able to pick up on a lot of what the Roman, you know, people thought and said and...

Prof. BLACKBURN: Right.

DANIEL: know, being able to translate their texts is really pretty amazing to me.


DANIEL: And I think that to know that I can understand what, you know, was going on 2,300 years later is pretty amazing.

Prof. BLACKBURN: It is. And it shows certain constancies of the human mind, which I quite agree with you about.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Daniel.

DANIEL: Thank you. Bye.

NEARY: Let's try and take another call from Rick. And he's in Reno, Nevada. Hi, Rick.

RICK (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I'm a devoted fan of the show and I've really appreciated the comments of your guest while I've been waiting.

NEARY: Thank you.

RICK: I wanted to pay homage to a couple of influences who brought me to the point of being a paid professional philosopher in the Nevada system of higher education. I teach philosophy and humanities in Reno. And I started out studying for the ministry in the 1970s and was asked to leave Bible college for asking questions. And when I started over at Portland State University, I came under the influence of William Hamilton, who was one of the voices in the `God is dead' theology of the 1960s.

Prof. BLACKBURN: Right.

RICK: And he put me in touch with some of the theologians that had influenced him. And, you know, I was already asking questions. But to have this opportunity to read widely and not feel that I was being condemned to hell for reading, you know--I think we all have some absolutes, but as we get older, we find that some of those absolutes are a little more relative than they might have seemed in the beginning.

Additionally, when I returned to the United States from serving in the Peace Corps in West Africa, I visited Harvard Square and was just browsing bookshops and came across a book called "Multicultural Literacy: Opening the American Mind." And there's an essay in that book by James Baldwin that was based on a talk. The title is "A Talk to Teachers." And one of the early paragraphs in that says, `The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look a the world for himself, to say to himself, "This is black" or "This is white," to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not. To ask questions of the universe and then to learn to live with those questions is the way he achieves his own identity.' Baldwin goes on to say, `But no society is really anxious to have that kind of individual around. What societies really ideally want is a citizenry that will simply obey the rules of society.'

And so I just wanted to thank some of the philosophers who have influenced me along the way to encourage me to think for myself. And I feel like, as your guest had mentioned, I'm part of a conversation that has been going on with humankind for thousands of years. And I feel very privileged to be paid by the state of Nevada to talk with young people about these ideas. And...

NEARY: Thanks so much for your observations, Rick.

Prof. BLACKBURN: Thank...

RICK: You bet. Thank you very much. Bye.

Prof. BLACKBURN: Thank you, Rick. I'm not sure that that requires an answer. Of course the first--one of the great founding stories of philosophy in the Western world is "The State vs. Socrates," the famous death of Socrates for asking too many questions, for trying to open people's minds to other possible ways of thinking. I quite agree with the caller that the absolutists who try to do that by censorship, by drumming you out of college if you ask questions, are in a way betraying their own calling. They're in a way showing that their castle is not founded on rock, but on sand, and can't survive any questioning.

NEARY: I wanted to follow that up with a question about religion. You begin the book with questions of faith and belief. And I was wondering why you started there. Also, this caller brought to mind a thought that I had, which is that religious people often believe in absolute truth, but it's their own absolute truth.

Prof. BLACKBURN: Right.

NEARY: And they often believe that whatever their religion is is the only truth. So how do you talk about truth in terms of religious faith, religious belief, and how do you reconcile conflicting absolutes?

Prof. BLACKBURN: Yes. Well, faith is a difficult one for me. I mean, faith is a word which rings very positively in America. It doesn't ring so positively in Europe. And I always think it's rather strange because, of course, faith works well when it's my faith. It doesn't work so well when it's your faith, when it sort of teeters over into lunacy and dogma and all those bad things. And I'd have thought the better attitude was to be suspicious of all faith; that is, to realize that it's a compass needle which points in different directions on many different occasions.

The ancient Greeks were very good at this and they realized that when argument gives out, when reason is equipoised on both sides, then the path of wisdom is to suspend judgment, not to get involved, and to withdraw from the whole issue insofar as that's possible. And that kind of open-mindedness strikes me as very virtuous, very right. The modern tendency is much more to say that if reason is silent, oh, that gives you license to believe what you want, and then you believe what you want and you call it faith. I think that's a pity. I think it's a more dangerous attitude. I start the book with the issue of religious faith not because it's, you know, by any means the center of the topic but because it's an example where the dangers of belief, when belief is set free from reason, are particularly obvious, obvious to all of us, if you look around the modern world. And so it's in a sense a laboratory test for the importance of the relativism/absolutism issue rather than an issue in its own right for me.

NEARY: All right. Let's talk another call from Paula, and she's in Tallahassee, Florida. Hi, Paula.

PAULA (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

NEARY: Go ahead.

PAULA: One thing that I've thought often about that I find very curious in terms of religion or history or in our own world is where conscience fits in. I really like thinking about conscience because it seems to be beyond what you're taught or even beyond a historical idea that somehow inside of humanity there is a sense of what is right, what is true. And then, you know, in other times I'll look at what is happening or what we've done to each other in history, and I think, well, maybe we have no conscience at all. But I--you know, there's a feeling in me that there's a sense of a born rightness, a born sense of what is the right thing to do, the right way to behave.

NEARY: Professor Blackburn, what do you think about that?

Prof. BLACKBURN: Well, conscience has certainly mystified quite a lot of philosophers. I myself am inclined to what is called in the trade naturalize it--in other words, to see it as the natural upshot of our life as social animals. Suppose for example, you're trained to keep your promises or to respect other people's property and you find yourself breaking a promise or nicking your friend's jewelry or whatever, it doesn't surprise me that, as it were, the voice of education kicks in inside your own head, becomes your own voice, saying, `Hang on, that wasn't such a good thing to do. You'd be ashamed if you'd been seen doing it. You'd feel you need to make some reparation. You feel like hiding your face.' That kind of instinct for shame or guilt, for reparation, for hiding yourself strikes me as a sort of fairly natural effect of the fact that we live in a normative world, a world in which we expect certain things of each other. And that, in turn, is just our life as social animals. So I'm inclined to give conscience a kind of natural explanation.

Of course, people's conscience can tell them to do the most awful things. There are people out there whose conscience for unborn babies is telling them to kill doctors. You know, there's no telling which side roads a conscience might find itself directed down. So I think it's a great mistake to think of your conscience as infallible. It might actually just reflect a prejudice that you've imbibed somewhere.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Paula.


NEARY: And I want to remind our listeners that you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

I wanted to ask you, you called Nietzsche the high priest of relativism, and he once said, `There are no facts; only interpretation.' Do you think that's a dangerous idea?

Prof. BLACKBURN: No, I think in itself it's a good idea actually. Remember that at the beginning of every judgment there's a mind making the judgment, and the mind won't have received, as it were, the words of the judgment. They will have received data, which they take make the judgment rational, reasonable or right, but it was they who were responsible for the take on the data, which they then voiced. And I think that's what Nietzsche meant, and I think it's a very salutary remark. Of course, Nietzsche being Nietzsche it's overstated; it's an aphorism which you can remember. It's a bumper sticker, not a whole philosophical treatise. But I think it's not a bad bumper sticker actually. I'd prefer to see that on people's cars than some.

NEARY: Right.

Prof. BLACKBURN: And so I do a bit in the book to defend Nietzsche. I know that people think of him as a sort of wild Germanic madman who had something to do with the Nazis. I think those judgments are wrong. I think he was a very subtle and interesting thinker.

NEARY: Let's take one more call. We're going to go to Michael in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Michael, go ahead.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hello. Hi.

NEARY: Hi. Go ahead.


MICHAEL: Thanks for having me on. I actually had a question, if you would, about what your opinion or what your belief is on the role that empiricism, or the idea of a testable hypothesis as, of course, I guess comes from scientific thought--what influence or effect that's had on the concepts of truth, the idea that somebody can independently--if a theory's made correct, they can independently find that or independently test that out and verify that for themselves.

Prof. BLACKBURN: Well, I think it's a wonderful thing, and I mean, certainly from the beginning of the--let's say the 17th century, the scientific revolution which made the modern world, it's been apparent that that's the glory of science. I was looking the other day at the frontispiece to Francis Bacon's great book, "The New Organon" of 1620, and there's this wonderful picture which includes two spheres with hands clasped between them, and one sphere is the world of the senses and the other is the world of the intellect. And Bacon was trying to write the first modern philosophy of science, the first way of conceiving how the senses and the intellect work together to produce testable, empirical science. Before that, the philosophical tradition had always been much more platonic, which said, you know, the senses are the organs of deception; they're the enemy; they're part of the body, almost, and you know what Christians, for example, think about the body. So they're the bad guys. It took a revolution of thought for it to be understood that knowledge and understanding would arise from a partnership of the senses and reason. And of course, empiricism is the rock on which science is built. It needs the intellect as well, but by Jove, it needs the senses.

MICHAEL: Mm-hmm.

NEARY: It that...

MICHAEL: What about the notion, then, that there--and I guess once again this would come from scientific theory about any idea of the physical world around us. What about the notion, then, of a world that persists and obeys certain laws that will sort of persist, I guess, whether or not you acknowledge them or whether or not you're aware of them, and they do have an effect on us?

NEARY: Michael, unfortunately, the professor has about 45 seconds to answer that question. I don't know if you can do that. If you'd like to get one last word in about truth, Professor, in about 20 seconds.

Prof. BLACKBURN: I think Plato was a part of a tradition which has a respectable side which is that you only understand things when you see something timeless in them. Change, especially, requires understanding in terms of status, in terms of things which are static, stasis, and...

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much...

Prof. BLACKBURN: ...that's an important idea.

NEARY: ...Professor. Great. Professor Simon Blackburn. His new book is "Truth: A Guide."

I'm Lynn Neary. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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